To Speak A Language Is To Participate In A World

In his book, “Black Skin, White Masks”, Frantz Fanon argues that language, far from just a tool for conveying information, expresses a world implied by it. In other words, words matter in shaping who I am in your eyes, as does my tone of voice, accent, dialect, and so on. If I am a foreigner speaking your native language, you will notice much more than just my technical linguistic skills. You are likely to form an initial opinion of me as a person, which influences the way you relate to me. Derrida also highlighted this broader meaning of ‘language’ in a seminar on hospitality: 

“In the broad sense, the language in which the foreigner is addressed or in which he is heard, if he is, is the ensemble of culture, it is the values, the norms, the meanings that inhabit the language. Speaking the same language is not only a linguistic operation. It’s a matter of ethos generally.”

Derrida, 1996
vintage cards and letters with an old fountain pen

Both Fanon and Derrida spoke the French language. Perhaps it was in part thanks to their biographies that they understood that languages are carriers of worlds much broader than any grammar book can reveal. Both were born in former colonies of France and were contemporaries (Fanon was five years older but lived a much shorter life). Jacques Derrida was born in 1930 in Algeria into a Sephardic Jewish family that received French citizenship at the end of the 19th century. Frantz Omar Fanon was born in 1925 on the Caribbean island of Martinique under French colonial rule into a family of African, Martinican, and Alsatian descent. He died at the young age of 36.      

“[Fanon] was one of the most important writers in black Atlantic theory in an age of anti-colonial liberation struggle. His work drew on a wide array of poetry, psychology, philosophy, and political theory, and its influence across the global South has been wide, deep, and enduring… Fanon engaged the fundamental issues of his day: language, affect, sexuality, gender, race and racism, religion, social formation, time, and many others… His participation in the Algerian revolutionary struggle shifted his thinking from theorisations of blackness to a wider, more ambitious theory of colonialism, anti-colonial struggle, and visions for a postcolonial culture and society.”    

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, entry on Frantz Fanon, 2019

Black Skin, White Masks was Fanon’s first book, published in 1952 when he was only 27, and it is widely considered one of his most important works. Fanon makes a lot of bold statements in the book, one of which is: “To speak a language is to appropriate its world and culture”. While I do not think that speaking a language always amounts to the hostility of world-appropriation (although, sometimes, it can be experienced this way), I agree that communicating in a language with relative ease means participating in the world of culture, social values, norms, and assumptions contained in it. 

That this is true is evident in how people judge others based on their pronunciation or vocabulary richness. Crucially, it is not the language skills that are evaluated but the speaker as a person. Referring to the experiences of the colonised people, Fanon observes, “I must watch my diction because that’s how they’ll judge me. He can’t even speak French properly, they’ll say with the utmost contempt”. Recent research on immigrant settlement experiences in Canada confirms these observations. David, an international student and immigrant from Nigeria, shared with one of the interviewing researchers, “It feels that unless I change the way I sound I’ll always been seen as an Other” (George & Selimos 2017). 

While reading Fanon’s book, I realised I also had an experience supporting the idea that language expressed a world implied in it. When I moved from my native Latvia to Germany for work and studied the language to feel more at ease in the local environment (in that ‘world’), some of my former colleagues, native German speakers, praised my knowledge of German and rapid progress. Although this recognition was pleasant on the surface, it was often expressed in a way that highlighted their surprise at my success with comments like ‘almost without an accent!’ and ‘you don’t make any mistakes!’. I recall now how conflicted I felt. My efforts were recognised, but in a way that made me feel somewhat inferior. There were also other native-speaking colleagues. They did not pay much attention to my German skills and talked to me the same way they did among themselves. It made me feel accepted as an equal and much more at ease in this ‘world’, although it was demanding from a technical-linguistic perspective. 

My experience reveals that even though the native speakers who praised my German did not intend any offence, they saw me more as a stranger, the Other in their ‘world’ expressed and implied by the German language in which I was trying to participate. It felt like they showed me kindness and hospitality by simultaneously stressing my not-belonging to their (language) world and by reaching ‘down’ to the young migrant girl who managed to join their ranks all the way from Eastern Europe. Referring to the lack of intentional offence when speaking “gobbledygook to a black man”, undoubtedly a more painful experience of prejudice than mine ever was, Fanon pointedly remarks:

“[I]t is precisely this absence of will—this offhand manner; this casualness; and the ease with which they classify him, imprison him at an uncivilised and primitive level—that is insulting.”

Fanon, 1967

In other telling cases that demonstrate the more profound and broader meaning of language, a refusal to communicate in a particular language, even if one has the respective language skill, is an expression of protest against the entire ‘world’ that language is perceived to embody. Spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the growing boycotts of almost anything Russia and Russian language-related in some countries serve as evidence that while speaking a language is participating in or even appropriating its world, refusing to speak it means much more than merely not using one tool of conveying information – it means outright disowning of the ‘world’ implied by that language.  

keep exploring!

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Image Credit: Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “To Speak A Language Is To Participate In A World

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Word: Being Ashamed Of Your Accent – humanfactor

  2. Pingback: Knowing Yourself As The Colonised – humanfactor

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